Chapter 2 ("The Literary Tradesman") Part 3, of the author's Pegasus in Harness: Victorian Publishing and W. M. Thackeray, which University Press of Virginia published in 1992. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.
[Decorated initial based on illustration by W. M. Thackeray for Vanity Fair]Authors — W. M. Thackeray]
hackeray had lost his fortune in 1833; he married in 1836 on the strength of a position that failed him within a yearAuthors — W. M. Thackeray]. His needs and his production were prodigious, but in 1840, after seven years in the profession, he still had not published a book. He was still learning the lesson that had to be learned by any person "with no other saleable property," that Pegasus [38/39]Authors — W. M. Thackeray] "does his work with panting sides and trembling knees," and that to survive the artist must "hit the public" with what it wants. Success was slow in coming; it entailed a shift from the view of a romantic artist to that of a professional tradesman.
The bibliographies usually tout The Yellowplush Papers (Philadelphia: Cary and Hart, 1837) as Thackeray's first published book, but he had nothing to do with its production and received not a penny from it, for Cary and Hart lifted it without so much as a by-your-leave from Fraser's Magazine. Authors — W. M. Thackeray]But Yellowplush's rapid transformation from periodical to book form is ample support for thinking Thackeray's early assessment of his work was right when he wrote on 5 March 1839 to Fraser:
I hereby give notice that I shall strike for wages. You pay more to others, I find, than to me; and so I intend to make some fresh conditions about Yellowplush. I shall write no more of that gentleman's remarks except at the rate of twelve guineas a sheet, and with a drawing for each number in which his story appears - the drawings two guineas.
Pray do not be angry at this decision on my part; it is simply a bargain, which it is my duty to make. Bad as he is, Mr. Yellowplush is the most popular contributor to your magazine, and ought to be paid accordingly; if he does not deserve more than the monthly nurse or the Blue Friars, I am a Dutchman.
I have been at work upon his adventures to-day, and will send them to you or not as you like, but in common regard for myself I won't work under prices.
Well, I dare say you will be very indignant, and swear I am the most mercenary of individuals. Not so. But I am a better workman than most in your crew and deserve a better price.
You must not, I repeat, be angry, or because we differ as tradesmen break off our connection as friends. Believe me that, whether I write for you or not, I always shall be glad of your friendship.Authors — W. M. Thackeray]
[Letters 1: 351-52]11
This letter is important as an early indication of Thackeray's realistic attitude toward his occupation and his place in it. It indicates furthermore the personal relationship he shared with many of his publishers. [39/40]Authors — W. M. Thackeray]Thackeray's assumption of equality, evidenced in his right to strike, is equaled by the publisher's right to decline. The reference to publisher and author as fellow tradesmen and the assumption of a value for the friendship aside from pounds, shillings, and pence reflect Thackeray's easy acceptance of the real conditions of his position as a professional writer in the commercial world of letters. He was no snobbish "gentleman" condescending to a bookseller. Any appreciation of his desperately precarious financial condition would dispel that notion.
Another candidate for Thackeray's first book resulted from a similar episode in 1840 with perhaps a less happy ending involving another publisher friend, Sir Henry Cole, for whom Thackeray in 1839 had supplied illustrations for the Anti-Corn Law Circular. In 1840 he dealt with Cole for an article on George Cruikshank for the Westminster Review. The article, a long one, appeared in June 1840; work on it may well have helped delay the work on The Paris Sketch Book, which also appeared in June. Thackeray's attitude toward the work he was doing on this essay can be seen in his correspondence with Cole. In April he noted that "after thinking and thinking I am come to the determination that the Ck. article MUST have several vignettes introduced into the pages, and this not for money's sake." Here a sense of what is required professionally outweighs money considerations. The next month he sent in the finished article, saying: "Amen, and as I think it over, and over, the hours of toil which have been spent in its composition I cannot but give it as my candid opinion that you have had all things considered a pretty good bargain for your money... I know not how far the article may extend but I request you as speedily as you possibly can to transmit to its author that trifling remuneration for which in a moment of weakness - of imbecile delirium he engaged to supply you with his composition." [two letters to Cole, in van Duzer, p. 45; not in Letters] Called "George Cruikshank's Works" and signed "Θ", the article took up sixty pages of the June issue. Cole decided to reprint the article separately and must have communicated with Thackeray some proposition, for on 31 July Thackeray wrote Cole, "If the Cruikshank article is to be published in the shape of a pamphlet, I would humbly suggest to you - that the author who was paid ½ price in the first instance, should be paid something for his name and his permission to use his writing. I have spoken with him on the subject & he says, by Jove, he will not otherwise consent to the appearance of the publication" (Houghton). In an undated note that must have been written in August, a much [40/41]Authors — W. M. Thackeray]subdued Thackeray wrote Cole: "I suppose Cruikshank is useless by this time - indeed I take shame to myself for not having earlier answered your note concerning him. But I was out of town when it arrived only came back to be in a great deal of bustle and anxiety and be off again, and indeed forgot all abt. the Cruikshank matter till this very morning of my return. Of course you may do exactly as you like with the article - and put my name to it if it is the least use." [Houghton; not in Letters] Thackeray's name was not used in the reprint, and he may well have missed out also on any added remuneration.
Though Thackeray's review of Cruikshank's works in the Westminster may have appeared before the publication of The Paris Sketch Book, its book form postdated the larger book, making Thackeray's first real book The Paris Sketch Book (1840). It came only after seven hard years of labor as a journalist, and the success it represented bore little resemblance to his anticipated £300 for three months' work. The burden was scarcely eased from Thackeray's panting sides. Thackeray first mentioned The Paris Sketch Book as a project in January 1837 in a letter to John Macrone, its eventual publisher, for whom Thackeray was trying (and failing) to provide illustrations to William Harrison Ainsworth's Crichton. Though Macrone died in September 1837, his name appeared on the publisher's imprint for The Paris Sketch Book in 1840, by which time Hugh Cunningham was running the business. When Thackeray first approached Macrone in January 1837, that new, enterprising, and nearly insolvent publisher had just published Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz, second series. Though Macrone had been best man at Dickens's wedding in the spring of 1836, he was no longer on speaking terms with Dickens, the result of contract disputes over a new edition of Sketches [cf. Patten, pp. 28-44].
That sort of problem seems not to have affected Thackeray's brief relations with the publisher, perhaps because, unlike Dickens, Thackeray did not suddenly and unexpectedly become a best-selling author. Next to a trial title page surrounded by a decoration vaguely resembling a fiddle case, Thackeray wrote to Macrone:
Will you give me £50 20 now for the 1st Edition of a book in 2 Wollums. with 20 drawings. entitled Rambles & Sketches in old and new Paris by I have not of course written a word of it, that's why I offer it so cheap. but I want to be made to write, and to bind myself by a contract or fine.
Think now about the advantages of this offer (I mean the one in the fiddle case) - I want something to do - & wd. be right glad to do this.
[Letters 1: 328-39]
Authors — W. M. Thackeray]Thackeray obviously was quick to realize that he produced better under the pressure of a sure publication than at leisure on uncommissioned work. This letter was not just a ploy for an advance of £20 (which we do not know if he got) but a deliberate attempt to impose work deadlines, something Thackeray sought for the rest of his life - including during the flush times of his later career - and which he hoped would lift him out of the round of magazinery to the status of an author of books. By December 1839, nearly three years after his first proposal to Macrone, the project was still pending, and Thackeray referred to the Sketch Book as "this horrid book" which would be finished in six weeks and "be tolerably pleasant" (Authors — W. M. Thackeray]Letters 1: 397). But by 3 March 1840, it was still not ready and only "half of Vol. I. is at the printers" (Authors — W. M. Thackeray]Letters 1: 425). In April his book had "not got on much" though he was writing furiously on it and several other projects, particularly the Cruikshank article (Authors — W. M. Thackeray]Letters 1:437). The Paris Sketch Book for which he had wanted a £20 advance and contract in January 1837 was finished (presumably final page proofs read) on 1 June 1840. Thackeray produced such a lot of other material in that, time (including Yellowplush, Authors — W. M. Thackeray]Gahagan, Authors — W. M. Thackeray]and Catherine) Authors — W. M. Thackeray]that it is probable Macrone had not advanced the £20 Thackeray had requested. Macrone may have done no more than encourage Thackeray, who seems to have worked occasionally for the publisher as a reader and editor as well, reading and recommending extensive changes in a book by Colonel Francis Maceroni (July 1837, Letters 1: 344). The Paris Sketch Book contract offer may have been the experience where Thackeray learned the advice he was later to pass on to another aspiring author: that a writer "must first do the books & then its 5 chances to 1, that he sells them," for publishers do not "buy a pig in a poke" (June 1847, Letters 2: 305).
By the end of July 1840, Thackeray's glee was apparent in a letter to his mother announcing that 400 copies of The Paris Sketch Book had been sold - "Enough to pay all the expenses of authorship printing &c. and to leave 500£ profit to the publisher if the rest are sold" (Letters 1: 459). If, indeed, Thackeray sold the first edition to the publisher for £50, and if Macrone actually stood to earn £500, Thackeray, now the author of his first book, and that a publisher's success, was not about to gripe at his [42/43]Authors — W. M. Thackeray]share. He knew well enough that the sales figures made him a desirable property for other publishers. Longman, book publisher and proprietor of the Edinburgh Review, Authors — W. M. Thackeray]and Chapman and Hall, at the time Dickens's main publisher and proprietor of the Foreign Quarterly Review, Authors — W. M. Thackeray]were reported "very willing to enter into treaty with me" (Authors — W. M. Thackeray]Letters 1: 459). The time would come when the author would make more money than the publisher from each new book, but for the moment what was good for Thackeray's publisher was great news for the author himself. Desperate for cash, Thackeray was happy with the new visibility.
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-----, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.
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Last modified: 4 April 2001